Striking parallels between the current US occupation of Iraq and events depicted in the movie The Battle of Algiers have been widely discussed. The 1965 classic, a dramatization of anticolonial struggle, was even shown at the Pentagon back in 2003, apparently as an instructional film.
But, as a few commentators have noted, there is another movie from the past which, if held up to an ideological mirror, provides insights on the Iraq catastrophe. Red Dawn, released appropriately enough in 1984, was rotten cinema; however, as an example of Cold War paranoia it was a masterpiece. Depicting a near-future Soviet invasion of the United States, the film followed the struggle of a group of young Coloradans against the forces of occupation.
At the time of its release, denunciations of Red Dawn focused on the absurdity of the movie’s premise a successful land invasion by Soviet forces and its potential to feed anticommunist hysteria. But I don’t remember anyone criticizing its portrayal of ordinary Americans’ determination to resist an invasion, should one occur.
Finding in my hands a copy of Red Dawn’s original shooting script (screenplay by Kevin Reynolds), I’ll use it to illustrate how, beneath the Hollywood hokum, the film made two important points: (1) whatever the odds, people will inevitably fight back against an invading army and (2) military occupation triggers a downward spiral of brutality on both sides. First, two short excerpts:
[An encounter with invading troops at an abandoned drive-in theater]
The SOLDIERS barely have time to react. A murderous BARRAGE cuts into them. Some dive for weapons.
Sandy puts an RPG ROUND into a truck. It blows up.
A few bleeding soldiers take cover behind the movie screen, wild with fright. Robert shoots them.
Jed: Robert? Is that all of them?
Robert (offscreen): Yes.
Andy: You don’t take prisoners?
Jed: We don’t take chances.
Burning phosphorus has landed around him. Tremendous NOISE OF HEAT SHELLS ripping into the earth with their shaped charges. A shrieking WAIL as an anti-tank missile glances off the T2’s turret without detonating.
Jed looks at Robert Daryl Tony; they all look at him. He leaps to his feet, running. They are right behind him. Shells streak in, the Russian GUN FIRES. They bolt, gasping air in headlong flight.
Moviegoers who two decades ago might have cheered on the boys of Red Dawn are likely to see the Iraqi resistance very differently, viewing it as a movement dominated by non-Iraqi jihadists bent on killing civilians. That is certainly the impression one gets from watching news on the small screen.
The Pentagon’s claim that most suicide bombers are foreigners appears to be true. But the wider resistance 30,000 or so strong is overwhelmingly Iraqi. A November 17 Washington Post article cited estimates by analyst Anthony Cordesman and others that foreigners make up between 4 and 10 percent of all guerrillas currently in Iraq. According to Cordesman, "Both Iraqis and coalition people often exaggerate the role of foreign infiltrators and downplay the role of Iraqi resentment in the insurgency."
Violence committed by the homegrown Iraqi resistance against Americans and their supporters must be condemned (just as we condemn the violence committed by the occupying army), but it also must be understood as the absolutely predictable reaction of a people under the thumb of a foreign superpower. It doesn’t matter if the foreigner’s flag is red or if it’s red, white, and blue.
The young rebels in Red Dawn also did not shrink from cruel behavior: executing prisoners, scalping Mexican members of the Soviet-led "coalition," and engaging in torture. To its credit, the script takes a dim view of such behavior; the young heroes who committed the acts appeared not to enjoy them, but to regard them as a grim necessity under the circumstances.
Exterior of the camp pre-dawn.
The Commando sits crosslegged and stoic in the dirt, his elbows tied behind him. He’s nineteen.
Sandy and Matt question him nervously. Half-dressed kids madly grab belongings in the background…
Sandy: Habla ingles?
Robert: Shoot him.
Matt holds the compass device up to the Commando’s face.
Matt: What is this?
No answer. Sandy slaps the prisoner. Robert holds up a cigarette.
Robert: Rub a butt on him!
Sandy is scared, so she does. The Commando yells, flails in pain.
Commando: Suck at you! Goddam for your mother!
Jed runs over and grabs him by his sweaty shirt.
Jed: How did you find us?
Commando (is scared, but he has been trained): You fock, Yankee!
Jed slugs him.
Jed: If you wanna live, talk.
Sandy: We better go.
The prisoner locks his face.
Commando: Gorsky, Stepan Yevgeny … Lieutenant
Robert kicks him in the stomach as hard as he can.
Robert: Nobody cares who you are, asshole.
He kicks him again … and again … and again …
Invasion and occupation can be successfully opposed by nonviolent means, but that depends on the citizens of the invading nation. (Even Gandhi admitted that his followers’ nonviolent independence movement may not have succeeded against another colonial power less accommodating than postwar Britain). The violent Iraqi resistance to US occupation continues because we in this country have so far been thwarted in our attempts to force an end to the war or the occupation through peaceful dissent.
If, in America, the tide really is beginning to turn in favor of an end to the occupation, many lives will be saved …but too late for thousands of Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqis. If leading Democratic lawmakers continue to resist the will of a solid majority of citizens and allow the occupation to continue, it will be too late for thousands more.
Two more scenes. This time, I have changed the names of the young American fighters to names that could be those of young Iraqis. And I have given American names and designations to the Russians (Try doing the same with the scenes above as well):
Salim: War’s different up close.
Salim: You get used to it after a while.
Bashir: I can see that.
Salim fumes quietly.
Salim: It must be something to kill a man from ten miles away. To sit warm in your plane and see that little flash in the distance. No body, no blood, no screams.
Sgt. Strickland: Put a medal on the boy… shot dead and he still got us down.
The troops drag two torn rag dolls into a pile Ghalib, Bashir. Their weapons are stacked beside them.
A soldier with a movie camera films the spectacle from various angles, then turns the camera on Strickland.
The picture is reframed to avoid the dead pilot in background.
Pentagon official: I would estimate preliminary enemy body count to 12 K.I.A., wouldn’t you, Sergeant?
Strickland: I see two.
Pentagon official: But they carry off their dead.
Using his boot, Strickland lifts Ghalib’s head for a closeup. There is a distant, dull explosion.
If these exchanges make sense when relocated from Colorado to Iraq, it’s because as a cycle of violence progresses, the actions of one side become harder and harder to distinguish from those of the other. The original motivations of the invader and the natural desire of the invaded to defend their home territory both get lost in the chaos.
Inexplicably, the Pentagon assigned the code name "Red Dawn" to the operation that captured Saddam Hussein in December, 2003. Clearly, no one involved in selecting that name was familiar with the movie or maybe they had a keen sense of humor. And the irony of the choice, at a time when a heavily armed United States was playing the role of an invader battling a ragtag army of locals, was overlooked by all but a few in the press.
But more than 20 years after it first landed in theaters, the much-maligned Red Dawn may finally have found a useful role in society, by prompting us to put ourselves in the shoes of Iraqis or Palestinians, or any other people who are living under occupation.
November 28, 2005